Sunday, October 10, 2010

SC on Deadly Premonition (360)

I can't properly put into words my exact motivations for buying this game, but I'll give it a shot.  Deadly Premonition is one of those games that I've heard about since it came out, and when I say I've heard about it I mean I've heard every kind of reaction to the game possible, including some I'd never heard before.  It's the best!  It's the worst!  It's mediocre!  It's a plague upon your houses!  It's Godzilla!  It's a brickhouse, just letting it all hang out!  It's a spicy meatball!  It's the economy, stupid!  It's eating her!  And then it's going to eat me!


I'm one of those people who doesn't trust a word any reviewer says, no matter how credible the person may (not) be.  So when I saw people bashing, standing up for, burning crosses on the front lawn of, and making sandwiches for this game I said "Screw you all, I'm playing this."  It was a budget release too, so in the end it cost me 20 dollars to put everyone else's bullshit aside and see the game for myself.

... Perhaps not "see" so much as "experience."

Deadly Premonition revolves around FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, who has been called in to help solve a case involving the murder of a teenage girl found nearly naked and hanging from a tree by her arms.  Oh, and she's split open from stem to sternum.  And the first people to find the body were two six-year old boys.  Enter our hero!

My scarred face sense is tingling...

Francis is, in all seriousness, one of my favorite video game characters of all time.  I can't begin to count the ways he is awesome, but I'll name a couple while trying to avoid spoilers.

The main selling point on Francis is this: he is clearly either schizophrenic or just plain insane. (You find out why he acts the way he does later.  Like I said, no spoilers.) He constantly has conversations with an unknown and unseen person he calls Zach. (No, it's not who you think it is) These talks range from details of past and present cases to movies like "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" to the Tom and Jerry cartoons.  Not only that, he will sometimes slip up and chat with Zach in front of other people as though only he and Zach were there.  He will even act on clues or "hunches" that he gets from Zach in the middle of a case.
His craziness goes beyond Zach, though.  He has lots of strange habits such as tapping a finger on his tie when he thinks or introducing himself to people with the exact same three-sentence introduction, word-for-word, every time.  He smokes, but he tends to puff on a cigarette a few times, put it out, and stuff it back in the carton.  Perhaps one of his strangest routines is his morning coffee, which to him acts like a fortune teller.

No really, he says "F.K. in the coffee."  I couldn't make that up.

Francis (I'll call him York from now on.  Everyone calls him York, or so he says.) is far from the only person in the game who has odd little quirks.  The old lady running the inn he stays in (where he is the only guest) sets him at the end of a massive table and herself opposite him because she wants to use the whole space of the dining room.  One of the officers at the police station, in addition to being a bit of a neat freak, has a vast amount of knowledge on squirrels and similar rodents and makes biscuits that even York approves highly of, which is no small feat considering how particular he is about biscuits... and coffee.  Everyone in the town of Greenvale has something that makes them truly unique to everyone else (aside from the five or six generic character models that fill the background in various spots), which is something I don't really see a lot of, or at least not done well, in games.

Don't fuck this batch up or so help me God...

And I'll end the character rant on this.  Whoever voiced York deserves an award.  Make one up if you have to because this guy took the role and played it as well as or better than any A-list voice actor could have.  The acting for the rest of the characters runs the gamut from kind of bad to pretty good, but York was amazing to listen to.

Ah, now for the gameplay.  This is where things get a bit muddled for most people.  The gameplay of Deadly Premonition contains a lot of little things that can continually add up and piss off the player.  Here's a list of these little things that can be seen in the game's first cutscene and over-the-shoulder sequence:

-Most of the background graphics are horribly outdated.  The first thing I noticed when the cutscenes started in a forest was that the trees all had flat branches, like something from an N64 game.  Unsurprisingly, when I caved in and looked at the negative reviews this was what reviewers penalized the game for more than anything.  Remember, kids.  It doesn't matter if your game plays well or tells a good story, it just has to look pretty.

Oh, how did this get here?

-Handgun ammo is unlimited and most enemies can be killed in four or five shots to the head.  While the enemies are creepy, they tend to be slow and the left trigger's lock-on makes them easy to hit.
-The enemies can become a bit repetitive, though I'm not expecting El Gigante or the executioner to jump into the story for some bullshit reason
-York will only keep his weapon drawn for about six or seven seconds.  If he doesn't use it or at least aim with it in that time, he puts it away automatically.  This can lead to tapping the aim trigger every five steps just to make sure he doesn't put it away as an enemy spots him.
-There is strafing, but there is no circle-strafing.
-York can only back up in a straight line.  Trying to turn while backing up does nothing.
-The framerate on the enemies, just the enemies, drops when they're at a certain distance.  Actually, just saying it drops is an understatement.
-Aiming is a bit stiff.  It's as though York's arms build momentum as the control stick is moved in one direction and when released they suddenly stop.
-Sometimes the music seems out of place, particularly the more jazzy tracks going on in the middle of a murder investigation.
-York has a ridiculously goofy running animation.  This becomes way more apparent later on when going up and down stairwells.
-Most enemies look a lot like the Joker from "The Dark Knight."

Still, there are little things about the gameplay to like.  York can sidestep while aiming his weapon (take THAT, Resident Evil 5!).  Switching weapons in real time is easy to do by tapping up and down on the D-pad, with the guns and melee weapons each grouped together to avoid one getting mixed with the other.  There's a toolbox extra items and weapons can go to, and both can be sent there the moment they're found.  Enemies not only need headshots to efficiently kill quickly, but move in to attack York in different ways.  Some walk forward with their arms blocking their face, some walk backwards, some turn around, bend back until they're a foot-and-a-half from the ground, and "limbo" their way forward, and some prefer not to move as much because they have guns.  Lock-on only targets the head when enemies do the "limbo" style attack, so the player can't just abuse the lock-on all the time.  By the way, you will want to get headshots because both killing enemies and scoring headshots earns an extra money bonus at the end of each chapter, on top of York's unpaid wages for doing his job.  This money can go to buying guns, food, medicine, coffee and what have you.  Said money can also be lost for doing such unprofessional things as wrecking cars and vandalizing the town.  Money bonuses are everywhere, so don't get too down about getting penalized once or twice.

That and you'll get jumped later on by two or three enemies at a time and need to be efficient about killing or avoiding them.  There's more to this game than a lot of people (and reviewers) are willing to give it credit for.

Speaking of which, here are some things you may not know about Deadly Premonition if you've only heard passing opinions on it.

1. There are driving parts.

 "That launch ramp is enticing.  Don't you agree, Zach?"

I know.  I was shocked, too.

Make no mistake.  Grand Theft Auto this is not.  York mostly drives a cop car from the sheriff and, unless he goes downhill, typically doesn't go faster than 60 miles-per-hour.  In other words, he drives like a sane human being (ironic, huh?), except for where the police siren is on which acts like a turbo boost... to 65 miles-per-hour.  It's more of a way to boost acceleration than speed.  Each car also has indicators for how much gas it has and how much damage it can take.  I didn't understand the latter until I realized there was a statistic in this game for number of cars wrecked.  That on top of stats for cigarettes smoked, number of times York shaved, and time spent peeping make this game... special.  In more ways than one.

Back to the driving, the car's handling tends to be very stiff. Most turning needs to be done either at very low speeds or with the handbrake to avoid crashing into everything, and the handbrake tends to make the car do a 180 regardless of speed or steering.  The handbrake takes a LOT of practice to be able to use properly, but after a few racing sections (yes, they exist too) it becomes easier, if not a little picky about how long to hold the button at certain speeds.

And I might as well mention it now.  The map system sucks.  There's an overworld map in the menu which, instead of always facing one direction, constantly switches direction so that York is facing north.  This caused me to get very lost early on, and I would have noticed it sooner except that the map can't zoom out very far at all.  It also doesn't mark key places like the police station, diners, bars, or the gun shop, but on the in-game "radar" these places show up as marked when York is near them.  At times I found simply trying to find and drive to someone's house in the woods or remembering where the inn or the hospital were to be some of the most frustrating parts of the game.

2. There are chase scenes.

What happens here is the screen splits between one large shot of York and a smaller shot of whoever or whatever is chasing him while button cues appear to run, evade, open doors, or push objects.  There are also times when York needs to hide and hold his breath (that's how some enemies see people).  Running happens the most, and since running tends to be shaking the control stick left and right these can become exhausting.

But that's the idea.  You're being chased by a serial killer!

 I'll never look at Jawas the same again.

These chases tend to last at least a few minutes and, if you do get caught, there's still a chance to escape and keep running.  It's far from unforgivable and adds a level of dread to confronting the killer, even if he does have a fetish for chokeslamming York on sight every single time and there's a small voice in the back of my head saying 'Why doesn't York just shoot the guy?'

The one real issue with these scenes is that the framerate tends to drop.  Noticeably.  Very noticeably.  It doesn't hinder the gameplay, but it doesn't do it any favors either, as I've noticed in the reviews.

3. There are quizzes.

Here is where I argue that this game is a survivor-horror title with the elements of a murder mystery adventure game, like In the 1st Degree and other similar games from that era.  Naming that game just made me realize how old I am.  Goddamn.

Okay, maybe not THAT old.

At a few points in the game York has to type up a report on a Typewriter-brand typewriter (no joke).  As this goes on he recounts all the details and events of the investigation to that point.  This typically happens at the end of an "Episode" which is divided into anywhere from one to seven chapters.  The last couple episodes are the shortest while the first few are the longest, and there are seven episodes in all.

Anyway, while he goes over these events he will randomly ask Zach about certain details, to which the player must select the right answer from three different choices.  I would say what happens when a question is answered wrong, except I've never had that problem.  Even though the first episode took me a little more than a week and a half to finish, I still got all the questions right.  Basically if you pay even a shred of attention to what's going on, you'll ace the quizzes.

By the way, it took me about eight hours of play to finish the first episode.  I've played this game more on the first playthrough than I did going through the Resident Evil remake four times, and I've rarely felt like the game was dragging on.

4. There are side quests.

At several points in Deadly Premonition York needs to go somewhere or meet someone at a certain time of day.  This leaves sizable gaps of time, amplified by the fact that one minute in-game is somewhere between twenty and thirty seconds real-time.  Sure, you COULD just have York go to sleep until it's time to go wherever he needs to-

Oh, right.  There's a rest bar and a hunger bar that indicate how tired or hungry York is, and letting York get too tired reduces his ability to run or hide as long as he could.  Keeping these up isn't particularly difficult as there are plenty of beds, plenty of places selling food, plenty of places to find food (though I'm suspicious of the turkey sandwich and smoked salmon I found in the abandoned lumber mill), and certain foods and drinks that raise the rest bar, hunger bar, or both.

Fully rested!  YATTA!

Side quests.  That's what I was talking about right? Well, throughout the game there are places to go and people to talk to.  Doing so sometimes triggers a side quest which involves finding something, moving objects, playing darts, fishing, or even clearing another "other world" level.  These actually can be fairly important as some not only reveal details about the people in town and their potential involvement with the murder, but at times also yield some important items.  One in particular is the Radio, which allows Yorks to warp to certain places.  Most quests give trading cards of people and things in Greenvale, which isn't so bad considering that each card collected gives a $200 bonus.

My radio > your radio.

Holy shit this is a long entry.  I guess I'll wrap it up by saying this:

Deadly Premonition is a flawed game.  It's far from perfect.  Just looking at it, it's clear to see that it's a budget title.

Possibly the best budget title ever made.

I have not been able to turn away from this game since I started playing it.  The characters, the story, and the variety o gameplay, despite its errors, make it an engaging experience.  This is one of those games that proves that an engaging story can not only save, but make worth while what would otherwise be an average or even crappy game.


I've bought games for $50 or $60 that didn't entertain me nearly as much as Deadly Premonition has, but I finished them out of feeling like, for that price, I had to.  I'm finishing Deadly Premonition because I want to, and to me that says a lot.